Col. the Hon. George F.G. Stanley
C.C., C.D., K.St.J., D.Phil., F.R.S.C., F.R.Hist.S., &c.

The Story of Canada's Flag


With the return of the Liberals to power in 1963 under the leadership of Lester B. Pearson the perennial flag issue once more came to the fore. During the election campaign Pearson made a categorical promise that Canada would have a flag within two years of his election-a promise he was not allowed to forget. No previous party leader had ever gone as far as to place a time limit upon his general undertaking to provide a flag for his country. Early in the new session G6rard Girouard of Labelle asked the Secretary of State in July, 1963, whether or not the red ensign was Canada's official flag: he was merely told to read the Orderin-Council of September, 1945. It was scarcely a satisfactory reply and when the question was put another way by Marcel Lessard, whether the Prime Minister in view of "some of his previous statements" intended "to set up a special committee to choose a distinctive national emblem for Canada, that is a flag and a national anthem," Mr. Pearson gave the cryptic but positive answer, "We will discharge our commitment in this regard, and it might not require a committee of the House of Commons first."

Sensing that the flag issue would be settled by the new government one way or another, the supporters of the red ensign mustered their forces, just as the defenders of the Union Jack had done in the earlier period. The Canadian Corps Association and the Royal Canadian Legion both took strong stands in favour of the ensign as against any new flag which would not include the symbolism of Great Britain.

The Prime Minister, however, showed both courage and conviction. Accompanied by John Matheson, the Liberal member of parliament for Leeds County in Ontario, he faced an unsympathetic audience of the Canadian Legion Convention in Winnipeg on May 17 and told the Legionnaires that the time had come to replace the red ensign with a distinctive maple leaf flag.

John Matheson, who, after the Prime Minister, became the principal exponent of a truly Canadian flag during the lengthy debate that occupied the second half of 1964, had, some time previously developed a considerable interest in the matter of flag design. He had studied heraldry and was prepared to turn his knowledge of this subject to the problem of preparing a flag which would be truly Canadian and at the same time heraldically satisfactory. He felt that a new Flag was bound to be adopted, particularly in view of Mr. Pearson's positive assurances, and in the closing hours of the Diefenbaker regime had placed two significant questions on the Order Paper, "Does Canada have national colours, and if so what are these colours?" and "Does Canada have a national emblem and, if so, what is that emblem?" To the first question he received the answer "white and red," and to the second "three maple leaves conjoined on one stem." Both the colours and the emblem were contained in the Coat of Arms granted Canada in 1921.

Matheson discussed the question of Flag design with two Ottawa experts in heraldry, Col. A. Fortescue Duguid and Mr. Alan Beddoe. Duguid, onetime Director of the Army Historical Section, had designed the "battle flag" carried by the ist Canadian Division when it had proceeded overseas in 1939. Beddoe, a former naval officer had produced the Books of Remembrance in the Memorial Chamber of the Parliament Buildings. Both Matheson and Beddoe favoured a flag showing three red maple leaves on a white background. However, the Prime Minister, long accustomed to the idea that red, white and blue were Canada's colours, insisted that the new flag, whatever else it should contain, should be made up of these three colours. It was therefore Lester Pearson who selected the design, drafted by Beddoe, containing three red maple leaves on a white ground with a narrow bar of blue at each end. This was the design which was formally submitted to Parliament in June. On the 15th, Lester Pearson moved:

that the Government be authorized to take such steps as may be necessary to establish officially as the Flag of Canada, a flag embodying the emblem proclaimed by His Majesty King George V on November 21, 1921-three maple leaves conjoined on one stem-in the colours red and white then designated for Canada, the red leaves occupying a field of white between vertical sections of blue on the edges of the flag.

This motion was accompanied by another to the effect that the British Union Flag continue to be flown officially "as a symbol of Canadian membership in the Commonwealth of Nations and of our allegiance to the Crown."

At once the proposed design came under sharp fire from the Opposition benches. The Conservatives, for the most part, favoured the red ensign which was still flying from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. The New Democratic Party, generally, preferred a one-leaf design rather than the three leaves conjoined on a single stem. Reluctance to accept the new flag was not limited to Parliament. Many newspapers also attacked the flag calling it "Pearson's Pennant," or, more derisively, "the poison ivy flag." So strong was the opposition to the three-leaf design that, in spite of the appeals of the Prime Minister, the Conservatives made it clear that the debate would be prolonged indefinitely, or until such time as the Government should abandon its efforts to thrust the new banner upon the people of Canada. The parliamentary debate generated no little heat and the atmosphere in the House of Commons became highly charged with emotion. Finally, after some weeks, the Government yielded to the suggestion that the question be referred to a special committee, and on September 10, a committee of fifteen members was appointed. It was composed of seven Liberals, five Conservatives and one each from the New Democratic Party, the Social Creditors and the Creditistes. The members were: Herman Batten (Humber-St. George); L. Cadieux (Terrebonne); G. Deachman (Vancouver- Quadra); J. E. Dub6 (Resti-ouche-Madawaska); H. J. Flemming (Victoria-Carleton); M. M. Konantz (Winnipeg); R. C. Langlois (Megantic); M. Lessard (Lake St. John); J. Macalusa (Hamilton West); J. Matheson (Leeds); 1. W. Monteith (Perth); D. V. Pugh (Okanagan); R. Rapp (Humboldt-Melfort); J. H. T. Ricard (St. Hyacinthe-Bagot); and R. Scott (Danforth). The chairman was Herman Batten of Newfoundland.

During the next six weeks the flag committee held no fewer than forty-one sittings. It studied nearly 2,000 designs and listened to hours of advice from heraldic and historical experts. The meetings of the committee were conducted in a calm and reasoned fashion, without the emotionalism and bitterness that had marked the debate in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it was obvious that each committee member was prepared to follow the line taken by his party leader in the House. The Liberals were prepared to support the "Pearson Pennant"; the Conservatives would have nothing of it. On the other hand, the Liberals and the small parties would not back the red ensign. The New Democratic Party asked for a single, rather than a three-leaf design, even if the latter did conform more closely to the requirements of strict heraldic accuracy. It almost looked as if the committee proceedings would end in a deadlock.

At this point Matheson recalled a suggestion which had been put to him in March, prior to the flag debate, by Dr. George F. G. Stanley, Dean of Arts at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, and a former Deputy-Director of the Army Historical Section. To a memorandum dealing with the history of the maple leaf and the beaver as Canadian symbols, Dr. Stanley had added as an appendix the various principles of flag design and submitted a sketch to illustrate these principles. His suggestion was based on the Commandant's flag at the Royal Military College. The college flag was made up of three vertical pales or bands, red, white and red, with the college crest (a mailed fist holding three maple leaves) in the white or centre pale. Dr. Stanley's variant of this flag substituted a stylized red maple leaf for the college crest.

By this time the examples before the committee had narrowed to fifteen designs. Matheson, as a heraldic expert, had felt obliged to support the three-leaf design; but he realized that the flag favoured by the Prime Minister would never gain the acceptance of the members of the other parties. Thus, after discussing the Stanley design with Reid Scott, the New Democratic Party member for Toronto Danforth, he agreed to give the red, white, red, single-leaf flag his support. One change was made; the centre white section was made equal in size to the tx/vo red sections combined, thus giving equality to both red and white. Also various styles of maple leaf were considered and an eleven-point leaf decided upon.

On October 22 the final vote was taken. One after the other the various designs were eliminated. The red ensign went down to defeat, ten votes to four. At last, only three designs were left; the first a cluttered Flag of red and white, containing the Union Flag and three fleurs-de-lis; the second, the red, white, red, single-maple leaf design; and the third the red, white and blue, three-leaf Flag originally introduced into Parliament by Mr. Pearson. The first design, favoured by the Conservatives in the committee, was eliminated nine votes to five. Expecting that the Liberal members of the committee would plump for the Pearson Flag, the Conservatives decided to cast their vote for the red and white flag with the red stylized maple leaf. To their embarrassment and surprise all other members of the committee did likewise. The result was a unanimous vote for the suggestion which Stanley had made in the memorandum sent to John Matheson eight months before. The Pearson flag was thus automatically discarded. The Conservatives, however, did not want to go on record as recommending the red and white Flag, and immediately demanded a vote on whether the flag should be recommended to Parliament as the proposed national flag. The committee's vote confirmed the previous vote, but not unanimously. There were ten votes for it and four against. One of the Conservatives, Th6og6ne Ricard voted with the majority. The chairman did not vote. Thus the committee's recommendation, which was sent to the House of Commons late in October, was a flag derived from the banner which, for many years, had flown from the main building of the Royal Military College.

At the same time the committee recommended the use of the Union Flag as a symbol of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. A Conservative attempt to employ the red ensign for this purpose rather than the Union Jack was defeated, and by a vote of eight yeas, one nay and five abstentions, the royal Union Flag was retained as a symbol of allegiance to the crown and of Canada's membership in the Commonwealth.

The committee's recommendation was not accepted without a lengthy battle in Parliament. John Diefenbaker, whose loyalty to the red ensign had been declared as early as 1938, was prepared to use every recognized parliamentary method of blocking the adoption of the proposal. However, the Conservatives were not united. Finally, in order to end what was, in spite of the denial of the Leader of the Opposition, a policy of obstruction that served no purpose other than to paralyze the work of Parliament, Diefenbaker's principal French-Canadian lieutenant, L6on Balcer of Three Rivers, urged the Prime Minister to apply closure to the Flag debate. Balcer had in previous years, supported the idea of a distinctive Canadian flag and knew that the feeling in his native province was strong for a Flag bearing no symbols either of Great Britain or France. Finally, after thirtythree days of angry argument and 252 speeches, the Liberal government closed the debate.

The result was a foregone conclusion; and in the early hours of the morning of December 15, 1964, the House of Commons approved the proposed maple leaf flag by a vote of 163 to 78. Senate endorsement came two days later. On Christmas eve, Queen Elizabeth approved the flag. A month later, on January 28, 1965, the Queen signed the official proclamation.

On February 15, 1965, the red and white maple leaf flag became the official flag of Canada. The red ensign was lowered from the flag staff of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, where it had flown since September, 1945, and the new flag was hoisted on the stroke of noon in the presence of Governor-General Vanier, the Prime Minister, members of the Cabinet, and an impressive assembly of guests and populace. Similar flag-raising ceremonies were carried out in other cities and towns throughout the country and the red maple leaf replaced the red ensign on military establishments, on all federal buildings inside Canada, and on all embassies outside the country. In Kingston, where the new flag was conceived, cadets of the Royal Military College stood to attention and saluted as the flag of Canada was raised over the parade square.

Almost ninety-eight years after Confederation Canada had a truly distinctive national flag. The great flag debate, which had gone on intermittently since 1867, was finally at an end.

John Matheson, who more than any other man had been responsible for this long-awaited achievement, expressed his view of the flag which had been selected to represent Canada and its people: "It meets all the tests for a distinguished flag. It is a flag of dignity and grace, worthy of a great sovereign nation."

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